One of the biggest flaws with traditional school transportation, says Todd Ely, director of the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, is that 66-passenger buses must make several stops along an indirect path. That design translates to long swaths of time with energetic children managed in triage fashion. Buses are also expensive to operate, which means most of the more than 25 million children in the U.S. who ride them are offered only one return trip: right after school. As a result, transportation-dependent kids miss out on a hidden curriculum of on-site after-school enrichment, as well as interpersonal engagement, like impromptu conversations with teachers. The status quo puts rural students and low-income children in large urban districts at a disadvantage, compared to their peers who live within walking distance of school or whose parents have the time and money to drive them.
Some are trying to change that with a variety of ride-sharing initiatives that decrease transit time, but long rides sometimes can’t be helped and even relatively short ones could be better managed. Ely says: “I always thought, just put Bill Nye the Science Guy on. You don’t want kids just watching TV, but if it’s something educational, it would be beneficial. At least the time isn’t wasted.” Districts have experimented with piping music onto buses, but Ely would prefer more, envisioning “interactive games where kids have clickers, and they’re actually responding to questions.”
It sounds fanciful, but one district has brought something along these lines to life. Over the last two years, Google piloted its Rolling Study Halls program, providing grants to help equip school buses with Wi-Fi and stripped-down laptops. Priscilla Calcutt, director of instructional technology for the Berkeley County School District in South Carolina, says the students who live in the more high-poverty areas of her district ride the bus for 90 to 120 minutes each direction. For them, “the Wi-Fi has been a great tool,” she says. The district has filters in place that block certain websites and keywords on both the district-provided Chromebooks and kids’ handheld devices, “but they could play games if they wanted to on the bus on the way home,” Calcutt says, or they can get a jump on the evening’s homework.
To incentivize enrichment over entertainment, Berkeley County instructional technologist Jessica Levine helped create “bus challenges” aligned with Achieve3000, a reading and writing instruction platform used by the district’s schools. Calcutt explains: “One of the bus challenges would be to read two articles from Achieve3000 and score 80 percent or higher on your quiz.” For tackling the extra work, students earn incentives such as badges, a dance or a pizza party. A virtual help desk, Levine says, allows kids to connect with teachers and ask questions about the challenges, or get help with other homework, all while in transit.
These innovations, aligned as they are with in-school work, function as a virtual analog of something academic research shows districts relying on busing often can’t adopt: extended learning programs such as longer school days. They also help level the playing field regarding children who have essentially cobbled that together by living close to school (they get after-school tutoring on site and hop on Achieve3000 from home, Calcutt says). Though the district doesn’t have data directly tying the program to improved academic performance, Levine says teachers report the kids coming off the bus with “improved overall attitude” and bus drivers see less misbehavior because students are engaged. It’s enough to justify Google expanding the program.
On a shoestring budget and with the help of the school’s art coordinators, Nancy Bui launched a program dubbed #FirstClass in her district that distributes kits filled with supplies like markers, modeling clay, connect-the-dots games, origami, and whiteboards. The school’s literacy specialist got involved, too, ensuring that vocabulary words included on cards in the kits serve students’ individual needs. “It’s boring; it’s bumpy. Traffic happens,” Bui says of bus rides before she instituted the program. When a bus was involved in a fender bender in 2017, she said, “The police were shocked. They were like, ‘They’re so happy!’” Wickstrom echoes the qualitative conclusions of her teacher counterparts in South Carolina, saying engaging in something meaningful on the bus “can allow them to come to school ready to learn.”
As promising as these small programs are, Professor Ely hasn’t heard anyone else “talking about how to make that time more constructive.” He says: “I don’t think that’s out there. It’s still a logistics field where if you talk to transportation people, it’s all time and distance for them. They’re not educators.” Yet high-quality, in-transit enrichment—in conjunction with programs that decrease ride times—could address a problem that has plagued integration efforts for more than half a century: how to keep the burden of transportation from falling solely on the backs of brown-skinned and low-income children. Decreasing the level of strain is a step in the right direction, Ely says.
There’s a second theory—that the more appealing buses can be made, the more likely wealthier families are to use it—but Pedro Noguera, director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is skeptical. “I like the idea of using travel time to educate or sing,” he says, but knowing what he does about racial bias and fear, he isn’t convinced “anything will make the bus attractive to the white middle class, unless it was to attend school with white elites.” The kids who currently ride buses need programs to ensure bus time isn’t wasted time, Noguera concludes, but they deserve far more.
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